Reflections on South Africa: A Veld of Hope

NB: The subject of race will feature heavily in this post. I write this with the awareness that such emphasis and terms are politically incorrect in the West, i.e. “coloured”. I also write this with the awareness that such terms are politically correct in South Africa.

I’m writing this post on-board an Intercape bus cruising up the Western Cape en-route to Namibia. The bus expectedly broke down for 4 hours and managed to leave us behind at a petrol station, but it has mercifully not been ‘promoting the Christian faith’ as advertised on their website. I’m not offended by such material, but I’m not in the mood to be reciting psalms on a 25 hour bus journey.

I’ve spent the last 7 weeks travelling a large proportion of South Africa. I’ve driven round-trip from Johannesburg to watch lions hunt buffalo in Kruger National Park. Then from Cape Town, I drove the 2000 km stretch to Durban. Along the way I sampled the wine grapes of Franschoek, surfed the Garden Route, raised eyebrows retrospectively by ‘surviving’ the Wild Coast in search of Mandela’s Qunu house and chased zebra up the Drakensberg on horseback. On the way back down, I outran a charging rhino in a VW Polo, chartered a hake fishing boat in Plettenberg, fell out of the sky in Mossel Bay and swam with seals, surfed and generally tried to avoid Great White Sharks around Cape Town.

To quote a new found South African friend I’ve basically, “done everything worth doing”. I wouldn’t claim my experiences encompass everything this stunning country has to offer, but it’s easy to see how South Africa satisfies an intrepid traveller on adrenaline and aesthetics alone.

But I came to South Africa for more. I came to experience how such a diverse society was coping with a legacy of institutionalised racism (Apartheid) and the loss of its globally recognised symbol of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela. My comprehensive travelling could not have been without the hospitality of hosts of all races or creed whether that be an outdoorsy Afrikaner or an entrepreneurial Xhosa, and so I feel confident enough to make fair comment on this nation and its outlook for the future.

South Africa offers unparalleled natural beauty, organised adventure and gastro-delights at wonderful value (the government’s economic incompetence has helped with this; Brexit hasn’t.) I was enthralled by the feeling of vulnerability in the national parks, and in rural parts relished at being asked to mix up my route home, just in case a leopard was stalking. Even the driving itself, exhausting as it was at times, offered enough sightseeing to warrant the effort; I’ll never forget the sight of a thunder cloud exploding above Pretoria, or a flash flood in Kruger.

Safety is a concern, especially compared to Asia, but much less so than I was warned about. Yes I encountered topless, drug-addled characters begging for money at traffic lights, but I didn’t feel the need to speed through reds, as the usual conjecture goes. Unless you’re wandering by yourself at night in a township, common sense is enough.

There were delightful exceptions, but one disappointing feature, when immersing myself into this society, was the irremovable fact that I was white. I’m a vehement believer that through travel, the people make the place, and so I approached my first African country with the naïve optimism that I’d be speaking Zulu while sharing beer with a Xhosa in a rural shabeen. The reality was that outside of the tourist spots or restaurants, I was met with general suspicion or at its worst, resentment – I had the unfortunate experience of stones being lobbed at my car, having turned down begging kids in very rural Mdumbi.

But you know what? I get why.

The current ANC government (African National Congress), led by the shameful Jacob Zuma who, quite frankly, must have Mandela rolling in his grave, has practically legitimised corruption at the highest level. Infrastructure projects mysteriously run out of money, yet the President is somehow able to expand upon a mansion compound in KwaZulu Natal for the exorbitant sum of 65 million rand. Education, the means of lifting oneself out of poverty, is seriously deteriorating with universities literally closing due to large scale protests over fees. Consequently and ironically, it’s the more vulnerable, uneducated, rural African communities that the ANC rely on for power that suffer the most.

So besides the corrupt government, where is the money? Generally speaking, it lies with the white people. The same ‘race’ of people who, decades earlier, oppressed the African and Coloured communities at an institutional level via racial laws and segregation, and imprisoned a man for 27 years for trying to free them. This is an extremely simplistic explanation, deliberately so, and it deliberately ignores Mandela’s legacy as a terrorist for this demonstrates the blind perspective of certain African people. But the reality is that simple ideas are easily grasped and shared, and we’ve seen very recently how a lack of nuanced insight can lead to political upheavals that challenge the idea of a united humanity.

Conversations with certain Afrikaners raised concerns of an almost ‘Reverse-Apartheid’ or that the country was becoming “another Zimbabwe”, concerns reinforced by the horrific stories of white farmers being murdered in the north. Economic discussion around employment somewhat affirms this, with an exodus of white males disallowed from filling jobs despite an unemployment rate of 27%. Undeniably, racial tension still exists and the unfortunate reality is that racism brews in an environment of fear and ignorance. The concept of a ‘white’ race in South Africa is overly simplistic anyway, what with the distinct cultural differences between ‘Boer’ Afrikaners and the ‘British’ whites of Natal.

But there is hope.

Zuma, the same man who claimed you can prevent AIDS by taking a shower, and his ANC are losing ground. Cape Town remained usually steadfast for the DA (Democratic Alliance), but it was the territory won in Johannesburg and the ‘Mandela municipalities’ for the DA that sent a crippling shock to the current establishment. Perhaps it was Zuma’s blatant corruption or the peoples’ hopeful expectation for ‘arbitrary luxuries’ such as running water or electricity that did it. Either way, South Africa’s political future looks brightly progressive.

And then we have the young generation, and here I’m looking at the ‘Born Frees’, or those born after 1994 and untouched by the trauma of Apartheid. Frustration was felt by a Xhosa man in rainy Cintsa, who felt that this millennial black generation were proudly ignorant of their families’ past sufferings. But conversation with a coloured educator besides our leaking bus raised questions as to whether this is actually a bad thing. According to him, it’s the trauma experienced by his older generation that creates the friction against true racial reconciliation, and so this lack of awareness means no more suspicion or resentment. He was confident that in 10-15 years, the notion of ‘colour’ would be redundant.

As for me, I’m also hopeful. Personally, I struggle to understand how national and racial boundaries are still so prominent in the world despite our global economic interdependence and access to DNA sampling. Ultimately, the true ‘originators’ of South Africa were the Khoi San bush people anyway, eradicated by both tribal and colonial exploitation, so all ‘races’ have a lot to answer for.

There were two moments throughout my travels that encapsulated my hope for South Africa: One was a journey with a Xhosa Uber driver who, despite living in the imposing township of Khayelitsha, was forging promising plans of expanding his family home thanks to this aforementioned universally empowering technology: Uber. Him and I shared discussion on the African house music scene and laughed as I attempted the distinct clicks of the Xhosa tongue.

The other was in Hout Bay, Cape Town. As I disembarked from our boat, reeking of fish and krill having just risked hypothermia to swim with Cape Fur Seals, I noticed a large group of kids somersaulting into the Atlantic from the harbour. My tanned skin paled in comparison to theirs with the exception of a yellow-blonde, very Dutch looking boy. He floated purposefully on an SUP and sat behind him, with hands on his shoulders, was his skipper – a black kid.

Race doesn’t matter when you’re hunting for treasure on a pirate ship.

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